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As Oregon Wildfires Burn, Some Evacuees Are Returning Home

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The wildfires here raging up and down the West Coast are far from over. But in Oregon, firefighters are making steady progress on a series of massive fires burning in the Cascades. And in some parts of that state, people are finally being allowed to return home. NPR's Nathan Rott tagged along with one man who now finds himself at a crossroads.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Driving through smoke, the world is reduced to the road ahead and the view beside.

KEVIN MUNIZ: Yeah, it reminds me of a foggy night in San Francisco, only it smells a lot worse.

ROTT: Kevin Muniz is behind the wheel. He's 61 and from California originally - a red 49ers cap gives that away.

MUNIZ: Road closed ahead. Well, I don't know how far up we'll be able to go. We'll see.

ROTT: We're driving east of Salem, Oregon's capital, towards a place that Muniz has called home until last week. A piece of spray-painted plywood propped up outside a passing house warns that looters will be shot. Most of the other vehicles on the road are emergency responders, utility trucks, fire engines, state patrol. We passed a few uniformed men picking through the wreckage of a burnt home.

MUNIZ: Yeah, you've got to think that they're looking for people that didn't get out.

ROTT: Four people did die in this fire, a fire that burned in the fickle way that fires do.

MUNIZ: This home - still standing. One on the other side - gone.

ROTT: We stop in an unburnt residential area in Mill City, a tiny town named for the lumber mills that still employ most of its residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ROTT: A hundred yards down a dirt path, there's a large wooden footbridge. The Santiam River passes underneath.

MUNIZ: Yeah, this is the historic railroad bridge.

ROTT: The other side is still technically off limits to all but emergency responders. But there are businesses on the other side, including Muniz's. We cross over and run into...

MUNIZ: This is Tim...

ROTT: How are you doing?

MUNIZ: ...Tim Kirsch. This is our mayor.

ROTT: Mayor Kirsch says that Mill City got lucky. They only lost about 20 structures.

TIM KIRSCH: Outside the city limits in every direction is pretty much destroyed for miles.

ROTT: The towns of Gates, Detroit - areas that remain inaccessible to the public.

KIRSCH: I'm told by the emergency services they're going to have to take out, like, 10,000 trees that are danger trees between here and Detroit.

ROTT: A distance of less than 20 miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)

ROTT: For Muniz, this is back or as close as he can get. He opens a door to his restaurant, a burger joint on the side of the highway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT SWITCH FLICKERING)

MUNIZ: All right. Come on in. So this is the dining room...

ROTT: There's smoke inside like there's smoke outside. But the building itself is fine, as are the signatures of a million-some customers written on wall and ceiling. It's a place that's clearly beloved.

MUNIZ: You know, I've got a lot of residents that come here for our signature burgers. I've got a lot of people that come here for our value menu, you know, because for six bucks, they can get two cheeseburgers, fries and a drink. And that's something they do two or three times a week because that's the best they can afford.

ROTT: On the night the fires exploded, Muniz was woken up in his trailer about 3 miles up the road. He grabbed his cat, told a neighbor to follow and headed west. What he went through, he says, he found oddly familiar.

MUNIZ: You know, last year's firestorms in California and now again this year. You know, you've seen on the national news those videos - people's cellphones of having to drive through those tunnels of fire. That was the experience we had.

ROTT: He says he could feel the heat through the windows. Days later, safe, Muniz decided to come back up the canyon. He drove to his home in the town of Gates. And all that was left of his trailer was a metal frame. The trailer, he says, wasn't a big loss - just clothes, day-to-day items.

MUNIZ: I, you know, wake up this morning thinking, oh, gee, I need to trim my beard. And it's like, oh, wait. I don't have a beard trimmer anymore (laughter), you know? Stuff like that.

ROTT: But it's stuff, he says, that can be replaced. There have been days in the last week in quieter moments that Muniz says he almost wishes his restaurant had burnt down, too. It's hard being a business owner. It's harder during a pandemic. He hasn't had a day off in two years.

MUNIZ: I would've been able to start a whole new chapter in my life.

ROTT: But he says since rumors started on social media that his business had burnt...

MUNIZ: Customers from, you know, years ago and customers that come here every year from near and far have reached out and wanted to make sure Poppa Al's was OK, you know? So...

ROTT: He blinks back tears.

MUNIZ: Yeah, there's no question about, you know, what I want to do is to keep, you know, get this place going again.

ROTT: ...So he can be a part of the town's next chapter. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Mill City, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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